Inception Ending Explained: Finished watching Inception and need an explanation of the film's ending? Was the top still spinning? Is Cobb stuck in a dream or did he reunite with his family? We've set up this page as a place where you can discuss the Inception ending and other spoilers. To help steer discussion we've added a lengthy analysis of Inception (especially the ending) and explained why our analysis of the film fits with the story Christopher Nolan intended to tell. Does our Inception explanation match your theory? Find out!
Many people walked away from Inception impressed. Some were confused, some were even feeling like they had their brains woken by the most exciting and thought-provoking movie experience to come along all year. We have an Inception review where you can leave comments about the actual film and we realize that most people who saw Inception have already made up their minds about what they perceived the film to be (and Nolan will undoubtedly be proud of that). However, for those of you still looking for an Inception explanation, we like to offer a few thoughts.
We've organized things by category for you, in case you're more interested in one facet of the film than another. If you want to read about specific points you can follow the links below:
- The Rules of the Dream World (this page)
- Page 2: Inception's Characters And Their Roles
- Page 3: An Explanation of Inception's Ending
The Rules of Inception
So, the first thing to talk about are the rules of the dream world Nolan created for the film. With all the action that happened onscreen, it was easy to forget some of the finer details - but once the lights came up, and people had time to think, I know the question of who was dreaming which dreams certainly came up (among others questions as well).
Remember the basic premise: Cobb (the extractor) and his team are con artists, and like any con artists their job is to construct a false reality and manipulate it in order to confuse and/or fool a mark (in this case industrialist Robert Fischer, played by Cillian Murphy). Nolan takes the classic concept of a con man a step further by making Cobb and his team dream thieves, but in the end, the basic concept is still your classic con/heist movie.
Dream Levels and Dream Time
Nolan throws a lot of fancy math at you but it's all really inconsequential. All you need to really know are the basic concepts:
The dream within a dream process puts you into a deeper state of dreaming. The deeper you go, the further removed your mind is from reality. We all know what that's like: the deeper you sleep, the harder it is to be woken up and the more vivid and real-feeling a dream becomes. If you're in a deep enough sleep, not even the usual physical ques to wake up effect you, such as the sensation of falling ("the kick") or even, say, having to go to the bathroom.
By the time you reach the Limbo state it can be so difficult to wake, and the dream can feel so vividly real, that the mind stops trying to wake at all - the mind accepts the dream as its reality, like slipping into a coma.
When you wake up in Limbo you don't remember that there is such a thing as a "real world" - as in any dream, you wake up in the middle of a scene and simply accept it for what it is. Breaking yourself out of this cycle is extremely difficult, which is why Cobb and his wife Mal were trapped in Limbo for what seemed like decades.
Time is the other factor. The deeper you go into a dream state, the faster your mind is able to imagine and perceive things within that dream state. We're told the increase is exponential, so going deeper into dreams turns minutes into hours, into days, into years. This is why Cobb and his team are able to pull off the Fischer job while the van is still falling through the air, before the soldiers break into the snow fortress, before Arthur rigs the elevator, and all within the span of a flight from Sydney Australia to LA.
In Limbo, the mind works so fast that actual minutes can be interpreted as years gone by. When Saito "dies" from the gunshot wound he received on level 1 of the dream, his mind falls into Limbo, and Saito remains there for the minutes it takes Cobb and Ariadne (Ellen Page) to follow him into Limbo - those minutes in one dream state feel like decades to Saito in his Limbo state. By the time Cobb deals with expelling Mal's "shadow" from his subconscious, Saito has begun to perceive himself as an old man.
Mal's shadow stabs Cobb during the film's climax, which throws Cobb back out into Limbo and onto the shores of Saito's limbo house. When Cobb has to "wake" again in Limbo, his mind is muddled just like old man Saito's brain. Through Saito's memory of Cobb's totem and some shared dialogue that included key trigger phrases - "Leap of faith," "Old man full of regret, waiting to die alone," etc. - Cobb and Saito are able to remember the meaningful conversations they had and that there is a reality they existed in before Limbo, where both of them had deep desires still waiting to be fulfilled (Cobb and his kids, Saito and his business). Once they remember that limbo is limbo, they are able to wake themselves up (likely with a gunshot to the head).